King Sihanouk: Insight Story

The Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia

by Anwar A Khan

(December 3, 2018, Dhaka, Sri Lanka Guardian) Cambodia, formerly the Khmer Empire, is located at the southern region of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Cambodia is currently the 69th most populous country in the world with an estimated 2018 population of 16.25 million. Distance from Bangladesh to Cambodia is 1,975 kilometers. This air travel distance is equal to 1,227 miles. Cambodia is developing steadily.

Those who are now sexagenarian or close to septuagenarian like us may recollect the handsome, bright-faced and aureate supreme leader of Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk during his pick-time rule in Cambodia. More so after his exile in Beijing and his shuttle diplomacy from there to Cambodia during the time 1970 – before his death in 2012 in Beijing for his firmness of purpose to conciliate rupturing of the political camarillas in Cambodia.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk was born on 31 October 1922 in Cambodia. He was king of his country from 1941 to 1955. After forcing the French to grant independence to Cambodia, Sihanouk abdicated and ruled as an elected head of state until he was overthrown in a coup d’état in 1970. Sihanouk became the nominal head of an opposition coalition, dominated by the Khmer Rouge, which defeated General Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic in a civil war which ended in 1975. The Khmer Rouge put Sihanouk under house arrest where he remained until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979.

In 1982 Sihanouk became president of the tripartite “Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea,” which includes the Khmer Rouge and forces loyal to former Prime Minister Son Sann. The coalition is fighting a guerrilla resistance against the Heng Samrin regime, which is backed by the Vietnamese occupation and controls most of Cambodia. The coalition government, however, is recognised by the United Nations and most of the countries outside the Soviet bloc as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

Sihanouk decided to start spending a lot of time abroad, after being restored to his throne in the nineteen-nineties, he moved to Pyongyang.

He has always been dedicated to his homeland. He tried to give happiness, some prosperity, and education to his people. He wanted his country to be independent, always independent. He defended his convictions as a patriot and as a national leader. He has done his best, but as a human being he could not be perfect, nobody is perfect. Once he said, “I have made mistakes, but I cannot blame myself, not because I have pride, but you know I am not God, I am not a Buddha, I am not Christ.” He further added, “There are good and bad aspects in me as a normal human being, but you must compare me with the other leaders in the contemporary history of Cambodia.”

Norodom Sihanouk was the titular head of the Khmer Rouge in the nineteen-seventies, when it held power under the command of Pol Pot, and presided over the extermination of nearly two million Cambodians. Pol Pot called for regicide in his first published writing, declaring in 1952 that the monarchy was “a running sore that just people must eliminate.”

Having made a hash of his attempts to play Cold War forces off against one another on the edge of the Vietnam War, Sihanouk had been ousted and saw Pol Pot as his way back to power. Pol Pot saw Sihanouk as the perfect cover story for his revolution—a royalist front for the total erasure of Cambodian history.

Sihanouk decided to start spending a lot of time abroad, after being restored to his throne in the nineteen-nineties, he moved to Pyongyang. That’s where Sihanouk felt at home, in a place that almost no other human being with a choice would want to be seen luxuriating, as the guest of another dynast who purported to be the embodiment of the people whose lives he wasted on an epic scale and without apology.

Most of the obituaries will tell you that the Cambodian people always remained respectful, even worshipful of him. Rather than seeing him as the personification of their wretched twentieth-century history, they imagined in him a national glory.

Like Pol Pot’s perverse ideology of annihilation in the name of nationalist authenticity, the mirage of Khmer monarchism—that the king was the nation’s greatness and glory made flesh—was concocted in Paris, untroubled by reference to historical reality. When the French colonised Indochina in the late nineteenth century, they discovered the magnificent temple and palace complex of Angkor buried deep in the jungle. Realising that Cambodia had once been among the most sophisticated powers on earth, French scholars encouraged twentieth-century Cambodians to imagine that their decadent and largely impotent royal family carried all the promise of past Khmer greatness. The French built a fancy new royal palace in Phnom Penh, where Sihanouk came of age. So it was not as surprising as one might wish it was, that as the Khmer Rouge began their reign of mass murder, Pol Pot and Sihanouk paused to pose for photographs together in the Angkorian ruins.

In 1970, the 'Sangkum Reastr Niyum' party was disbanded, and thus Norodom ceased to be its leader. On March 18, 1970, the National Assembly along with military general Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk, and took over the administration of Cambodia. This happened when the deposed King was on a trip to Moscow, Russia, and he was forced to escape to Beijing in China. In Beijing, this leader in exile established the 'National United Front of Kampuchea', an organisation that collaborated with the 'Communist Party of Kampuchea', commonly known as 'Khmer Rouge'. The aim of the political organisation was to bring an end to the administration of Cambodian Prime Minister Lon Nol.

In 1975, the 'Khmer Rouge' was able to capture Phnom Penh, and depose Lon Nol. While, Communist leader Pol Pot took actual control of the administration, Norodom was officially named the head-of-state of Cambodia. The next year, the popular head-of-state was forced by the 'Khmer Rouge' to retire. In 1978, the 'Khmer Rouge' administration was ousted by the Vietnamese invasion, and Cambodian politician Heng Samrin, representing the 'People's Republic of Kampuchea', was made the head-of-state.

Sihanouk opposed this move and by 1982 he was appointed the President of the 'Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea'. The government-in-exile comprised of 'Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste', formed by Norodom himself, 'Khmer People's National Liberation Front', belonging to political leader Son Sann, and the 'Khmer Rouge'.

In 1989, the Vietnamese government left Cambodia, making political leader Hun Sen the representative of the 'People's Republic of Kampuchea ' party. By 1991, the 'People's Republic of Kampuchea' and the 'Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea' signed a peace treaty in Paris, and Norodom's exile ended with the agreement. Sihanouk was once more chosen as the King of Cambodia in 1993, but owing to health ailments, he spent more time in China.

This brilliant ruler of Cambodia was known for his fight for Cambodian independence, first from the French, then from the Japanese and eventually from Vietnam. He had formed several political organizations like 'Sangkum Reastr Niyum' and the 'National United Front of Kampuchea', to achieve this goal.

In 1956, the Republic of Philippines declared Norodom the 'Raja of the Order of Sikatuna'. The same year, the Spanish government awarded this former King of Cambodia with one of their highest honours, the 'Grand Cross of the Order of Military Merit'. After his reign came to an end in 2004, this revered ruler was given the title of ‘Preah Karuna Preah Bat Sâmdach Preah Norodom Sihanouk Preahmâhaviraksat’. It means 'His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk the Great Heroic King King-Father of Khmer independence, territorial integrity and national unity'.

Siahnouk’s life-long pursuit and goals were as they seem:

The complete independence of Cambodia and the safeguard at any price of Cambodia's territorial integrity; peace and national stability with unity and national reconciliation and; to encourage all Cambodians to work together in order to progressively develop their country.

The first achievement of these goals that the young monarch fixed for himself and his country came in 1947 when with the assistance of France, King Sihanouk obtained from Thailand the return to Cambodia of the territory it had taken during the Second World War: The same year, he undertook the transformation of the institutions of the State. Holding all powers, and exercising directly most of them-in particular, legislative powers-the young King wanted to replace the traditional absolute monarchy by a Constitutional and Parliamentary monarchy.

On 31 May 1946, an electoral law was promulgated allowing the election, by universal and direct suffrage, of a Consultative Assembly charged to study a Draft Constitution to be submitted to it. Elections were held in a peaceful atmosphere in September 1946 and the new Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia was promulgated on 6 May 1947.

This first Constitution of Cambodia was greatly inspired by the elaborated scheme of the provisional government of the French Republic. It had a thoroughly democratic spirit and contained the principal and necessary stipulations to make the constitutional monarchy a democratic institution.
Essential public liberties were acknowledged to all Cambodians and the law, the expression of the national will, guaranteed to all citizens the practice of constitutional liberties and rights. All power emanated from the King, but was carried out on his behalf by the National Assembly, the Ministers or the Courts of Justice of different degrees or jurisdictions concerning either the legislative, executive or judicial powers. Members of the National Assembly were to be elected by universal and direct suffrage and were the representatives of the whole Cambodian nation. They were given parliamentary immunity during the entire period of their electoral mandate.

The Council of the Kingdom, another assembly of a consultative nature, was established. Their members were either appointed or elected by limited suffrage. It provided advice on legislative matters. The Ministers were responsible to the National Assembly and could be prosecuted by it, for crimes, offences or mistakes in discharging their duties.

The new Constitution also made provision for the establishment of the Higher Council of the Magistracy, which would ensure the independence and discipline of the Magistracy. In 1949, King Sihanouk obtained from France the repeal of the 1863 Treaty and the 1864 Convention that had established the French protectorate over the whole of Cambodia. The country then became a State associated to the French Union. By early 1953, he was ready to make his move and consolidate the independence of Cambodia. As part of what he termed his 'Royal Crusade for Independence' the young King travelled to France and demanded complete Cambodian sovereignty.

The French initially ignored his requests and the young monarch, therefore, embarked on a trip around Europe and the United States as part of what can only be described as a brilliant public relations campaign in which he exposed the case for Cambodian independence to his interlocutors. Upon his return to Cambodia, King Sihanouk took up residence not in the capital but in Siem Reap, near the ancient city of Angkor and continued to explain his goals to his compatriots and foreign visitors.

On 9 November 1953, France finally decided to grant full independence to the Kingdom. In 1954, Cambodia participated in the Geneva Conference as a country having already achieved its full independence and could therefore avoid the partitions of which Laos and Vietnam were the victims. In Geneva, Cambodia signed a peace agreement with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by which Cambodia obtained the departure from Cambodian territory of all the Vietnamese Communist forces remaining in the country after the independence of Cambodia from France on 9 November 1953 and the departure of French forces. Always ready to defend the territorial integrity of Cambodia, He did not hesitate to take up arms against foreign invaders such as in the military operation known as 'Samakki' when he led the biggest offensive operation of the Cambodian Armed Forces against foreign troops in the north of Cambodia from 17 December 1953 to 2 January 1954 and again in the provinces of Kratie and Stung Treng in April 1954 against Viet-Minh (Vietnamese communist) forces.

Norodom Sihanouk was appointed the King of Cambodia when he was merely nineteen years old. He remained the ruler of the nation for fourteen years, interspersed with brief but frequent spells as Prime Minister.

On 2 March 1955, he announced his abdication. He said, "The fact is that my abdication from the throne of Cambodia has no other motive than my own very sincere conviction that my duty as a ruling monarch had come to an end with the attainment of the national independence of our people and that another task is now awaiting me."

This task was the solution of social problems and the promotion of a genuine democratic system by putting an end to a situation in which the powers of government had become concentrated in the hands of a small privileged class, who could in no sense be said to represent the real interests of the people and which in fact was exploiting them. It was my aim to ensure that these powers will be exercised by the people themselves, and to give to them the means of removing the injustices, corruption and exploitation from which they have suffered so long.

It is his belief that such a task could not be properly fulfilled by a reigning sovereign, who found himself imprisoned within a rigid system which cannot be easily adjusted because that system was created by the interested persons who have since caused his people to lose faith in those so-called democratic institutions, based in fact on a foreign system of government, ill-suited to the nature and the needs of our people. By renouncing the Throne, he wished, therefore, to serve his people in order to achieve these aims.

Norodom Sihanouk was appointed the King of Cambodia when he was merely nineteen years old. He remained the ruler of the nation for fourteen years, interspersed with brief but frequent spells as Prime Minister. According to the 'Guinness Book of World Records', this former ruler is the only politician to have been appointed in the most number of political offices. After fourteen years of reign, he abdicated the throne, and his father, Suramarit took over as the king. After his father's death, Norodom once again became the Prime MInister. For five years in between, military general Lon Nol ruled after having deposed the existing rule. Helped by political party 'Khmer Rouge', Sihanouk won back his kingdom, and became the head-of-state. However, he was only a puppet in the hands of the communist leader Pol Pot. After Pol Pot was deposed by the Vietnamese army, the Cambodian King had to face another round of political struggle. His reign was marked by political turmoil, with different countries and organisations taking over Cambodia. However, with the goal of achieving independence for his nation, and the ambition of remaining the king, this ruler did everything possible to establish his reign. Till his death, this king was popular amongst Cambodian citizens, for his nationalist cause, and is revered even now.

This former King of Cambodia succumbed to a heart attack on October 15, 2012, in Beijing. His funeral was held at the Royal Palace in his homeland, and state flags were flown at half-staff as a mark of respect. Sihanouk's body was brought back from Beijing on an Air China flight and about 1.2 million people lined the streets from the airport to the royal palace to witness the return of Sihanouk's cortège. The Cambodian government announced an official mourning period of seven days between 17 and 24 October 2012.

A balanced evaluation of his seventy-year-long political career is difficult to assemble. He certainly overshadowed the country in his years in power in the 1950s and 1960s, and in that period he strode the world stage with fervour, confidence and brio. He also made many serious mistakes, such as supporting the Khmer Rouge. Still Sihanouk was a charismatic figure able to inspire and excite his people. He was adept at arousing an emotional response to motivate his followers with his passionate and persuasive speeches. The whole nation is blessed by the graceful presence of the King Father! Under Sihanouk’s influence, traditional Cambodian music mixed with more modern strains to create a very unique sound.

The man who was variously Cambodia's anti-colonial leader, king, prime minister, prince, and exiled figurehead is inseparable from his country's modern history. His death marks the end of one of the most remarkable careers in international politics over the last century. The former king of Cambodia packed so many lives into his 89 years. A full accounting of his legacy is for the future, but his passing offers the opportunity for a tentative assessment of how this mercurial, passionate figure might be remembered.

-The End-

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs.

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